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The begum’s burka

Published Mar 20, 2012 11:45pm


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THERE are those who wear the burka for purely pragmatic reasons: to ward off the catcalls of men loafing at bus stops and in bazaars, to stanch the slick rumour-mongering tongues of neighbours, to better protect the outfit underneath from the grime of city life.

Their needs are simple and can be met easily. The burka is a covering and so must be hardy and resilient, a sort of armour for the woman underneath trying with fabric to put some space between herself and the encroaching public world.

These recipes would be simple if the only women who wore the burka in Pakistan were the practical, hard-nosed urbanites for whom anonymity is essential to making inroads into worlds and spaces previously unknown to their gender.

These would be the female students who have to use public transport to get to and back from a faraway college, recently migrated village women who must now ply the city streets to do the shopping and middle-aged housewives for whom educating the last son or daughter has meant manning a store counter. The encompassing blackness of the heavy fabric reduces not simply the time required to dress and become presentable, it coats need and necessity with respectability.

There are some others who have chosen to wear the burka in recent years, women who are neither of the aspiring middle class wresting education or a job from a wasteland of men and opportunity, or the apologetically poor, interested only in warding off the leers of guards and gardeners.

These are the women of tea parties and coffee parties, newly reincarnated in (post) ‘war on terror Pakistan’ as the newly religious. Like the would-be dieter that happily collects her gear and gets up before the onerous task of actually eating less, the paraphernalia of piety is far more crucial in this game than the actual act.

Among the newly pious, partaking of tea and pastries in drawing rooms, the allure of the burka as a beautiful eccentricity — a newly discovered hobby that elevates morally and distinguishes socially — presents some unique dilemmas. Survival in this social set follows a longstanding set of rules, the first of which is conspicuous consumption.

If bags and shoes and scarves and outfits cannot speak for themselves, or shrouded under burkas, speak at all, they lose both their power and their social purpose. What good is that diamond bracelet under the tight-buttoned cuffs that cannot be rolled up? What value is there to that couture outfit denied a voice under an itchy piece of beige polyester?

All this leads to the vexing conundrum of projecting both wealth and piety at the same time. What to do when women with no vocation other than the propagation of status find themselves addicted to an exploration that contradicts the competitive spending required of the newly wealthy?

One solution could have been a choice, where the dictates of one is chosen over the other. As per this recipe, the diamonds and drawing rooms would be abandoned for the muted greys and browns that would make the begum undistinguishable from the driver’s wife and go off to collect tomatoes and potatoes from the neighbourhood market.

This could have disastrous consequences. Newly covered aunties would look out from the tinted windows of their Toyota Prados to find the same pale blue geometric hijab from that one shop on Karachi’s Tariq Road staring back at them from the heads of women riding on the backs of Honda motorcycles. Everyone knows that Pakistani society cannot tolerate such confusion of class, mistakes that would make the rich look poor.

Some of the problems emanating from the challenge of projecting piety and wealth with a single garment are pre-empted by the steadily growing influx of Khaleeji Swarovski crystal-encrusted abayas and hijabs. Some enterprising pious begums have embraced the task of training tailors to sew matching and contrasting hijabs, artful patterns and designs that they insist can distinguish the discerning wearer from the merely ordinary one motivated by practicalities.

None of these troubles, however, seem to have provoked the question that one would have expected to evolve from the curious marriage of piety and wealth. With wealthy Pakistani women swarming to religious revivalism, redefining burka styles and investing previously dowdy hijabs with the finesse of their distinctively expensive tastes, alarmingly few seem interested in exploring the connections between modesty and poverty.

The revived burka of the rich begum can, it seems, traverse all the boundaries of unfettered spending and showmanship, sport crystals and pearls, cost more than the salaries of maids, chauffeurs and maybe a couple of office clerks combined, and yet magically invest its wearer with instant purity and piety.

Its form, ultimately, is more important than its function. Largely disconnected from the power relations of the society around it, it can absolve the sins of greed and exhibitionism in one easy act of covering. Wrapped in an expensive couture burka or in a Hermès scarf, the society madam of old is no longer simply wealthy but also devout and spiritually laundered.

There can be only one explanation for this lack of focus on the meaning of the begum’s burka: that those who have taken on the task of making religion fashionable for the wealthy have glossed over the ethics of wealth in favour of promoting the garb of piety.

Why not inveigle the reluctant with the choicest angles of revived faith, new avenues for material competition and newly discovered inroads for fashion innovation before bogging them down with the challenges of charity, restraint and honesty? Under this recipe, wearing scarves and designing hijabs bears not just a worldly but a transcendent value, making the begum’s burka the most fashionable route to paradise.

The writer is an attorney teaching political philosophy and constitutional law.


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Author Image

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.

She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (16) Closed

ali Mar 21, 2012 09:40am
I miss the good old shalwar kameez. It was a very respectable dress encompassing all the religious and social conundrums. The sight of a woman wearing burka is still very frightening to me.
miramshah Mar 21, 2012 11:15am
Though the writer's concern is appreciated, she has succumbed to the liberal fascist agenda once again. I never heard read an article from her denigrating the flesh exhibitionists wearing De Beers or Cartiers in total disregard for Islam, culture or sensitivities, let alone any semblence of justice or equality. Its hard to believe such aunties identify themselves as Muslims, any other religious identity, of course, even if desired, would push them to the fringes of society. However, burkas tend to attract her undivided attention. Talk about champions of hypocrisy.
Amin Mughal Mar 21, 2012 01:18pm
An excellent popular-culture study, in depth and insightful.
Saeeda Mar 21, 2012 03:23pm
I think none of these women have actually read the Qur'an. Or anything about Islam. Only the Prophet's wives had to cover up to distinguish them from other women and not be molested in the street. The Qur'an that I read tells men to lower their eyes and not stare in women's faces and for women to do the same regarding me. If women had to cover their faces God would not have said this. He expects us to be modest and we are tested throughout life. If we were to cover from head to foot their is no test. To cover up like this is going against the Qur'an in my opinion. Modesty comes from behaviour more than from clothes. Covering up was copied from orthodox Christians and is not Islamic.
akbar Mar 21, 2012 05:30pm
who are you to judge why somebody is wearing burka? How can you judge somebodys inner piety (whether rich or poor) and how can you generalise such a personal thing? some questions you may like to comment on please.
Saba Mar 21, 2012 06:38pm
Shocking to read that the writer could give so many reasons for covering up except the one real fact which is that women actually wear burkas to please their lord. As for extravagance,it's discouraged in islam for whatever the reason. What's interesting is that the writer has never solely written about the expensive designer clothes wore by the begums and made by our beloved designers. What about the Rs 5000 designer lawns by Sana safinaz ? Why are people buying them in hoards when a three piece lawn suit can also be bought under a thousand rupees?care to comment?
Pankaj Patel(USA) Mar 21, 2012 09:41pm
Burka predates Islam and it was prevalent in Mideast during Pagan, Jews and Christian periods.It was a necessity for security of women.Other cultures has given up with improvement in status and security of women, while Muslims have remained stuck to it faithfully.Burka is a necessity in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan but nowhere else in whole of Asia,Europe or America.
Jno Mar 21, 2012 11:04pm
These people probably have no constructive way to contirbute to society. Only serve thier narrow interest and often indulge in these writings which only lead people astray. These fitna of our time are test for the true practicing muslims. But God is enough to guide the followers in all times.
Shafi Mar 22, 2012 03:11am
In general burka is the invention of men trying to keep women prisoners. As the writer says the new trendy and fashionable burkas, hijabs and scarves have nothing to do with piety; it is more to do with exploitation of wealth. Not Islamic.
Cynical Mar 22, 2012 04:42am
Burka is man made.Evidently god create us without a cover.
g.a. Mar 22, 2012 07:12am
Women don't need to wear a burka to protect themselves from the man. It is man's duty to protect a woman. What if the woman in burka is your own mother, sister, or daughter would you still tease them?
Shurli Mar 22, 2012 07:17am
Another article by the author, supposed to convey a message to the ordinary masses, but I didn't get it. Suppose I am not ordinary.
PAKISTANKIQASAM Mar 22, 2012 05:11pm
perhaps they wear burqa to please their Lord, and fulfill His command. I suspect writer gives every thing a materialistic value, underlying reason is definitely her spiritual deficiency.........
Shumaila Mar 24, 2012 01:23am
The problem is that these burkas, (unlike dresses designed to reveal flesh, as you call them) were originally a symbol of piety and modesty, and as the author suggests, using them to flaunt your wealth and fashion sense is an amusing and ironic travesty of the original purpose. That is the crux of the article, which you and many of your similar-minded compatriots, in your collective rush to insinuate 'unislamic practices', have failed to understand.
Jahanzaib Haque Mar 27, 2012 07:37am
Excellent article. Many thanks to the author for this well-crafted fist punch.
Zaynab Mar 27, 2012 07:42pm
I have a very layman understanding of islam but I see no harm in covering up and looking good at the same time. As far as i know Islam does not condone extravagance but it doesnt prevent you from spending on yourself according to your means, as long as you are fulfillin your obligations towards others. If someone feels more pious in a SWarowski studded abaya versus a skin tight designer lawn suit, I say let them.